Like a butterfly unfolding spindly legs from its chrysalis I emerge, blinking, from the sleeping box aboard the night bus. Its marks are all over me: the pattern of its furnishings and my luggage imprinted onto my skin; the tootling fanfare of its novelty horn lodged in my brain with all the annoying stubbornness of an Ed Sheeran chorus, and twice the musicality. The morning sunshine sears my skin like a laser.
I try to explain to the crowd of braying auto drivers that I don’t accept rides from people who accost me as soon as I’ve stepped off a bus, but they don’t stop yelling for long enough to hear. Reluctantly we agree with one who quotes us 100 Rs, the usual going rate for tourists who don’t yet know a city, and climb in. He sets off down a main road heaving with congestion, and as soon as we’re out of sight of the auto stand informs us the price is 150 Rs each.
When he drops us at our hostel, having ignored our howls of protest and instructions to drop us at the next roadside the entire way, I for some reason compromise and give him two hundred and a couple of scrunched up tens lurking in a corner of my wallet. He kicks off at this. Waving hands in the air he passes the entire wad back to me, insisting it’s insulting and the ride is free. Rebecca and I shrug and turn towards the hostel, at which point he jumps in front of us and insists we pay three hundred.
After eleven hours crammed into a tiny sleeping-box on a loud, turbulent bus Rebecca and I are in no mood for this. Rebecca breaks into her Mom voice, questioning his moral compass in no uncertain terms and hammering her point home with stern finger-wagging. This weakens his reserve. Eventually a traveller laden with baggage leaves the hostel and he shifts his attention to them, pocketing my tentative palmful of cash and, a tad optimistically, slipping me his business card.
If Kerala is India Lite, Varanasi is India on steroids. Like Agra with the Taj, nearly every film crew comes here for iconic shots of the Ganges flowing through crowds of devotees as they bathe in the sacred river. For this reason it shapes our preconceptions of the country and Varanasi (AKA Benares or sometimes Kashi, the latter meaning “City of Light”) is a dense crush of stereotypes. Its backstreets are a winding rabbit warren of dark stone slabs spattered liberally with cow dung. Scraggy, fearless monkeys traverse the city in packs, badgering the unsuspecting for food. Unassuming, narrow alleys house shrines in their nooks and reveal colourful temples around every corner.
The main street, running roughly West from the river, is almost unnavigable on foot. Every square inch is occupied by someone vying for your attention; the vast majority of these are auto- and pedal-rickshaw drivers, but there are also plenty of hawkers imploring tourists to visit their shops, and a host of beggars unlike anything we’ve encountered before, bolstered by legions of priests and devotees extending metal begging bowls as we try to push through the crush.
The strange thing is that the ghats, the sacred steps from the riverbank to the Ganges for which the city is famous, are fairly deserted. We put this down to the time of day; it’s mid-afternoon, and most of the religious activity here takes place in the morning and evening. It’s too hot, really, for anything to happen a this time. We share the scene only with a group of kids playing tennis-ball cricket, a few devotees sitting in the shade in orange robes, half a dozen buffalo wallowing ecstatically in the shallows and a man taking a very public crap in the river.
A baba, stark naked and daubed from head to toe in grey-blue paint, falls in step beside us as we saunter aimlessly along the ghats. His jaunty gait and state of undress call to mind Michael Palin’s ex-leper from Life of Brian. He shakes my hand, then starts chanting “Happy Holi” repeatedly as he skips alongside. This I find confusing, since Holi took place weeks ago while we were in Goa, so I sing tentatively along with him, trying hard not to look at his eggshell blue balls. Eventually he detaches himself from us to stand with another small group of naked blue babas, and as we walk off I hear them all laugh heartily about something probably to do with us.
As the spiritual centre of Hinduism, I had a vague notion before arriving here that Varanasi would be a very traditional city. In many respects it is, but this doesn’t apply to food. Its sacred status attracts a roaring tourist trade, meaning there’s a huge market for authentic non-Indian food. Yesterday we had lunch at a bakery offering a wide array of global cheeses, and today we breakfast at Dosa Café.
It’s charming and cosy, a tiny three-table parlour tucked away on a backstreet, that serves up a creative spread of dosas with a range of traditional and fusion fillings. I go for a French Cheese – ratatouille and mozzarella, with the usual trio of accompanying chutneys.
Then we make for the ghats and try to adopt an attitude of saying yes. A week back in England was a powerful reminder that our time here is limited, and we’re determined to make the most of it by saying yes more. Not to everything, mind. That would be a really stupid idea. But to more, much more.
We allow ourselves to be briefly kidnapped by an ayurvedic doctor who walks us to his aromatherapy shop and watches Rebecca bookmark the location on Google Maps when we tell him we can’t buy anything right now. We buy lemon soda from a grubby street stall and drink it even though it’s full of ice that, for all we know, may have come straight out of the Ganges. I know, crazy right?
Then we get chatting to a nice man standing eagerly by the soda stall who is quick to inform us he owns a fabric shop near the Golden Temple. It’s obvious he wants us to go there and we really don’t want to buy any fabric, but he’s friendly enough and not too pushy compared to most of the hawkers. Distracted by conversation with him we amble into the crush of the main road and it all unravels.
We unwittingly provoke a turf war between four cycle rickshaw drivers, then having decided to walk to the hostel instead are followed down the main street by one of them. Brains and tempers frying in the afternoon sun, we take what looks like a diversion off the main road for a few blocks before re-emerging.
“Hello, English!” sings a familiar voice. We’ve rejoined the main road almost exactly in step with our fabric shopkeeper friend from a few minutes ago. Finally fed up with the constant badgering I spin round and reply “No, please, stop following us.”
He looks – quite rightly, given that we’ve almost stepped on him while appearing from nowhere and responded to his greeting by accusing him of stalking us – a bit offended. With a level of quiet, hurt dignity that puts me to shame he responds “I wasn’t following you. Why would I?”
Varanasi is like two cities merged into one. One of these is a pressure cooker of constant intrusion on personal space, noise, pollution, filth and squalour. The other is a sublime, transcendent patch of unbridled happiness; an upbeat, vibrant expression of goodwill and positivity. For the last couple of days we’ve seen plenty of the former; today, we get a good taste of both cities.
Beginnings are inauspicious; soon after lunch I squidge my flip-flop deep into one of the city’s millions of cow pats. After rinsing it off we take our customary stroll down the ghats, taking lots of pictures. The ghats are incredibly photogenic. Brightly-painted boats line the bank serenely, the walls by the steps themselves are covered in impressive street art, and the hotch-potch of building styles packed in along the sacred river makes for a nice picture.
Then we stumble across a strange scene. A huge fire blazes in the middle of the walkway. A crowd of people, many dressed as devotees, and scraggy animals is gathered round. I raise my phone to take a photo before Rebecca says “No, there’s a person”.
It takes me a moment to realise what she means. At first I think she’s talking about the crowd; we’ve had an ongoing discussion throughout the trip about the ethics of photographing scenes containing people without their permission (and have reached the vague conclusion that, if it’s a large crowd in a very public place, it’s more or less OK).
Then the penny drops and I feel a complete idiot. I already knew that Varanasi is more or less a living cemetery. Hindus believe that anyone who dies here instantly attains moksha, so the city is home to, among much else, a huge number of hospices. The banks of the Ganges are famous for the number of cremations they host.
I feel sick with guilt and embarrassment as I notice a foot poking out from the pyre. I’m as horrified by the idea that people might have seen me move to take a photo of the scene – might even think I did take one – as I am weirded out by the sudden proximity of death, the realisation that we have unwittingly wandered into a funeral.
We dart home through the backstreets, dodging touts and skeletal cows munching hopefully on piles of plastic by the roadside, and shower off the sweat and sense of pollution from the funeral and our own accidental voyeurism of it. Purified, we return to the ghats for pizza.
Our previous hostel recommended a great place down by the riverside, and as well as good food it serves up a clear view, in the hour or so before sunset, of the evening crowds assembling at the ghats. As the City of Light becomes shrouded in darkness, the street lights along the river bank switch on. A whirlwind of colour, the good-natured hum in the air is interrupted by occasional bursts of chanting, singing, clapping and the beat of instruments. After dinner we repeat the same walk North along the ghats that we’ve taken several times over the last few days, the stretch’s character transformed after dark into a dense, happy throng of activity.
After a few minutes we come to a raised platform on which two devotees dressed in white robes perform an elaborate display, twirling bronze goblets the size and rough shape of French horns with cobra-head motifs over the cups. The cups themselves glow with crackling embers and the flames trace the movements of the devotees’ arms through the air, all to the rhythmic beat of a tabla, a ringing bell and chanting from the temple set back from the riverbank.
I find myself wishing there was someone who could explain what we’re watching to me, and at that moment a voice to my left asks “Where are you from?” and sits down beside me.
Mohit looks to be in his mid-teens, a Varanasi native at school nearby, and in response to my flurry of questions he explains that we’re watching Aarti, the ritual paying of respects to the river Ganges.
“The river feeds us,” he says, “so this is our way of giving our thanks to it”. It happens nightly, and the chanting is in Sanskrit.
Mohit introduces his younger brother, Avinand, and they’re accompanied by a third, still younger boy whose dress and shaved head makes me think he’s an initiate, a devotee-in-training, though before I can ask the three announce it’s time for them to go. Before leaving, they explain that at the appropriate time we are to throw the orange and pink petals a priest has just handed out among the crowd into the river.
Like so much else in life I go about this with a touch of awkwardness. Most, but not quite all, of the crowd have removed their shoes to descend the steps towards the river and I feel distinctly like I’m doing the wrong thing as I unlace my cumbersome trainers. I nearly trip on a thick chain in the darkness, which would have seen me tumble forwards for a head-first bath in the holy waters, then leave the riverside uncomfortably early, unsure what sign the rest of the crowd are waiting for before departing. Even so, I threw some ceremonial petals into the river with a crowd of maybe fifty or more other people, and there’s something very uplifting about the sense of community this creates.
We keep sauntering north and the vibe is unrelentingly great. Everyone is there: the old, the young, families, big groups of young lads challenging each other to sprint up the ghats’ steepest walls, silent, solemn priests, young priests, old priests, groups in very traditional dress, groups that look like they’re about to go clubbing, Indians, Westerners, East Asians. We stop for chai near a local guy strumming an acoustic guitar and, with everyone, soak in the simple pleasure of being part of a happy crowd.
The best thing is that, as far as I’m aware, there’s nothing remotely special going on today. It isn’t a festival, or a holy day. It’s Sunday, but that’s no biggy to Hindus. This is just Kashi by night.